The Rakoff Collection At The V&A Museum
Ian Rakoff is a screenwriter, film editor, comic book collector and author of Inside The Prisoner: Radical Television and Film in the 1960s. He has worked with major British directors including Lindsay Anderson on If…., Hugh Hudson on the Tarzan film Greystoke and with Stephen Frears and Nic Roeg. He also wrote the Western episode of Patrick McGoohan’s TV series The Prisoner. His lifelong passion for comics led to his compiling a significant representative collection of mainly American comics, from vintage turn-of-the-century newspaper strips to today’s graphic novels, which the Victoria & Albert Museum acquired in 1990 for The National Art Library. This year the V&A added to The Rakoff Collection of Graphic Literature by purchasing a further thematic collection of pre-Code American romance comic books.
To celebrate the ongoing commitment of the V&A to comics culture, Ian Rakoff and Paul Gravett have devised a One Day Symposium: Archetypes v Stereotypes in Comics and Graphic Novels, in association with Comica 08, combined with an evening event featuring Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie, to be held at the V&A on Friday 14 November. Ian Rakoff will be giving the Keynote speech entitled "Art of the Century: Stereotypes, Prejudice and Grammar in Frame-Culture (Film and Comics)."
The following interview with Ian Rakoff was conducted by Mark Ward.
Captain Marvel & Little Orphan Annie:
Ian Rakoff’s two favourite comics in the V&A collection
Tell us a little about your background.
I grew up in South Africa during the forties and fifties under apartheid and needed a moral compass which I found in banned literature and comic books, particularly Captain Marvel. I was in trouble at school because of my attitude to our system of governance, fuelled by observation of the dystopian environment, generated by Superheroes, Westerns and Crime. When I was twelve I wrote a serial in a school magazine - which I edited - about a heavyweight title boxer. It being a white boys’ school, the writing about a black hero I was vilified and the magazine banned. At fourteen I gave a politicised talk. I got beaten up by the boys, and caned by the deputy headmaster. The school had a confusion of values, caught between traditional liberalism and the draconian race laws of the land. I was repeatedly in rebellion against the system. Any other school would have expelled me. At seventeen a psychologist directed my parents to force me to give up comics, for being the cause of my lack of conformity. Losing that safety valve drove me berserk for years until political commitment reined me in. However, that subversive association forced me to flee the country.
Did your collecting of comics restart when you settled in England?
Not initially, but after a broken engagement and deep despondency, I drifted back into that childhood culture via the Popular Book Exchange which had shops all over London. There I discovered The Amazing Spider-Man whose realism and day-to-day struggle for survival, while secretly being a Superhero, appealed to me tremendously. Within a short time I’d again become an avid comic reader and a monthly subscriber to Magnus Robot Fighter; Tarzan; Doctor Solar, Man of the Atom; and Turok, Son of Stone.
Would it be fair to say that you collected by genre, that you have different tastes as time goes on?
Genre was a major factor because that was the best, most accessible way to store a collection. It’s the way the publishers work, and the way kids think. Westerns were my favourites. Partially because of exciting vistas and the simplification of right and wrong. The link to the movies was another spur. However, it was the clear line, wit, and social sensibility of Captain Marvel that attracted me strongly. Batman too was always appealing and never dimmed, no matter which direction they took the narrative over the years.
What I avoided in childhood was Romance comics. That was girlie stuff and like crime comics had too many words. I read books for words but I read comics for words and pictures. I wanted the image to breathe and expand within the frame. I disliked figures squashed down by the weight of words. Recently I dipped into the Romance genre which I’d dismissed in my youth. I nearly fell off my perch when I realised they weren’t teen stuff but breathtaking, magnificent, hard-core reality, about relating and suffering, influenced by the dark corners of film noir. Researching, I learnt Romance had dominated the market from 1949 until they were killed off by the witch-hunters of McCarthyism in 1954. I got my American dealer to track down Romance, initially plentiful and cheap. Then, word got out and prices soared, but I’d already acquired enough for a museum collection (years back, Elizabeth Esteve-Coll, museum director at the time, warned me this would happen). This collection now belongs to the V&A.
There is a duality with a lot of that genre fiction - the colonialism side by side with a love of the native culture.
There’s no less ambivalence and contradiction in comics than there is in literature, evident in those stirring boys’ own books of times gone by. Steeped in humanistic, liberal sentiment but beleaguered by arrogant, naive, distasteful values. Rider Haggard was known to be devoted to the Zulus but what he wrote about Africa may have romped along in rip-snorting fashion, but was suffused with class snobbery, and a patronising, racist sentiment. It was deeply ingrained and no bleaching could eradicate it, whereas Conan Doyle never displayed that privileged kind of nonsense, even if he did believe in faeries. The Fiction House publications, Sheena, and a host of other jungle girls, bursting out of tigerskin bikinis, swinging vines, cracking whips and bearing white man justice over African inferiors were an absurdity. Tarzan, by Jesse Marsh, created a language of his own on Africa, with a minimal regard to Rice Burroughs. His chunky figures danced the brooding landscape like hewn stone, and you could feel the waterfalls thunder, and the rains lashing while tribal ignorance intruded on the occasional page. I bought a near complete run of Hal Foster’s Tarzan Sunday colour newspaper pages from 1931 to 1933. The dealer lamented that no one else wanted poor condition - investors wanted mint condition. Lucky me, lucky museum.
What is your obsession at the moment, what are you collecting now?
At the back of The Lone Ranger from the forties ran Young Hawk. With an epic look, and an authentic feel, this serial follows two lost Mandan boys and their dog across North America, before the horse culture and the arrival of the white man. Their adventures cover the lives of different tribes, social mores and the ways of war and conflict. On achieving a complete run (circa 1948 — 1962) I hope to get Young Hawk reprinted in one volume.
I also collect Tonto comics because away from his master, or masked lover, The Lone Ranger, it’s an entirely different story. Tonto visits his tribe bringing justice, sensitivity and history with better scripting than when with his partner. I look out for any native American material, though many are shoot-em-up cowboys, or leggy dames, whites adopted by ‘redskins’ now in skimpy attire as personified in the Fiction House publications. I am drawn to anything reprinted from the newspaper strips into comic hook format, especially from the thirties and forties, but especially the classics on the American psyche. Little Orphan Annie, for one, wrapped in magic realism, is a social document of no lesser significance than those of other renowned philosophers on Capitalism from Steinbeck to Dreisser.
How did the link up with the V&A happen?
When I reached London in the sixties my favourite cultural haunt was the V&A and for decades I dreamt of comics in the museum. At the end of the eighties I had what I considered a viable collection, 16,000 comics. My flat was overcrowded. Time to approach the museum. I contacted the wrong person in the wrong department, who gruffly reprimanded me but then exclaimed he was the right person as Chief Librarian and Keeper of the National Art Library. He steered me along and after a year we had a package, an irrefutable case and the trustees passed it. I’d got friends from the comic book world to muck in and help sorting and cataloguing. The main help was a film animator, David Clarvis. When he passed away he left his collection of Disney comics for me to take care of which got accepted by the V&A.
If you had to choose your Desert Island comic, what would you take away with you?
Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie; Roy Crane’s Captain Easy; Jesse Marsh’s Tarzan and Gene Autry; H.G. Peter’s Wonder Woman; Classics Illustrated; C.C. Beck’s Captain Marvel Adventures; Love & Rockets by the Hernandez Brothers. That should keep my going for a while, but I need to reserve the option to extend the list.
Ian Rakoff will be giving the keynote speech at the V&A Conference, ‘Art of the Century: Stereotypes, Prejudice and Grammar in Frame-Culture (Film and Comics)’ on Friday 14 November, 2008. More detals can be found here.Posted: October 28, 2008